Ronnie Screwvala: After Building a Media Empire, What’s Next? Lifting One Million From Poverty

Ronnie Screwvala sat cross-legged early last month on the floor of a three-room schoolhouse here in Nate, a village about 100 miles from Mumbai, the city of his birth where he built a billion-dollar media conglomerate. Watching a group of children playing with colorful educational games, Mr. Screwvala, a boyish-looking 54-year-old, appeared as wide-eyed and engaged as the students.

By PERRY GARFINKEL, NY Times 

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Ronnie Screwvala in 2013. A wealthy entrepreneur, he has committed himself to elevating the people of rural India.

A few minutes later he addressed about 30 teenagers from the Cathedral and John Connon School, a prestigious Mumbai private school that is his alma mater. The students were visiting the school in Nate to witness the work of the Swades Foundation, the nonprofit group that Mr. Screwvala and his wife, Zarina, founded with a large chunk of the money they received from the 2012 sale of his business, the UTV Group, to the Walt Disney Company. The transaction was valued at $1.4 billion.

The foundation’s mission seems virtually impossible. It aims to lift one million villagers in Maharashtra State out of poverty within six years, and then help them build better lives.

The foundation currently concentrates on a cluster of about 2,000 villages in the state’s Raigad District, a total of 110,000 households and more than half a million people. It offers school-based educational support and teaching tools, health and nutrition programs, water and sanitation projects and agricultural and job training.

“We’re applying all the same models we used to build our company,” Mr. Screwvala said, noting that the foundation carefully quantifies the success or failure of its initiatives, making adjustments along the way.

Because Swades is independently financed, he said, “we have the advantage of starting up projects without delay under our own steam.”

In its latest website update, posted on Nov. 30, the foundation listed the accomplishments since 2013 of its 300 full-time specialists and professionals and 1,300 community volunteers.

In the area of water supply and sanitation, Swades says it has built 10,889 toilets for individual homes and 733 water storage structures that provide drinking water to 82,109 people.

For its work on health and nutrition issues, the foundation notes the formation of 1,863 self-help groups, training for 1,059 community health workers, vision tests for 177,123 people, the distribution of 32,500 free pairs of eyeglasses and 5,873 free cataract operations.

The foundation says it also has trained 4,895 teachers and principals, offered computer and English literacy classes to 36,000 students and awarded scholarships to more than 2,500.

And it claims to have introduced 20,000 farmers to new farming technologies, planted thousands of mango and cashew trees and set up 1,411 people with dairy cows and 1,214 others with poultry for eggs and meat.

The Screwvalas say they hope to raise a generation of socially conscious middle-class Indians, and perhaps the next wave of Indian entrepreneurs.

“You have the means and the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate than you,” Mr. Screwvala told the Cathedral and John Connon students. “Get involved in social activism.”

A half-hour later, Mr. Screwvala walked through a small cashew processing plant in the village of Nate Khind. Swades — the name means “one’s own country” — supports 20 such cashew processing units and hopes to expand to 100.

While several women separated the nuts from the shells by hand, about 30 cashew farmers and processors eagerly asked for his advice and help. But he was more interested in what they had to say, asking them questions and listening intently to their concerns.

Their biggest obstacle is securing bank loans to expand production, they said. The bank wants collateral, but the villagers have only cashews to offer, which the bank will not accept. The villagers asked if Mr. Screwvala would lend them the money.

“But that will perpetuate your dependence on me,” he responded, offering to meet with the local loan officer instead.

“If we get the message across, even all those women shucking shells can become entrepreneurs once these processing plants get so big they run out of space,” he said later. “The women could suggest becoming independent contractors, processing from their homes, even hiring other women.”

As the day went on, he met with others involved in Swades-supported projects: farmers developing new crops; young people studying at a skills training center; a chicken farmer; and people at a newly built water tank and a mobile eye-examination van.

On the drive back to Mumbai, he conceded that the foundation’s goal of reversing the centuries-old problems of rural India was enormously ambitious. But the Screwvalas are no strangers to disrupting the status quo.

Mr. Screwvala — his full name is Rohinton Soli Screwvala — has been disrupting the Indian market for 35 years. He started Network, a cable company, in the wide-open frontier days of television in India, when the only station was the government-run Doordarshan. The UTV Group, founded in 1990, gave the country its first reality show, its first talk show, its first daily soap opera, its first home shopping network and its first channel for children. UTV’s ventures expanded to include video games, motion pictures and new-media businesses.

Mr. Screwvala’s movies were not filled with Bollywood’s typical song-and-dance sequences. Among his first was “Rang De Basanti,” a fact-based 2006 production about a British documentary filmmaker making a movie about Indian freedom fighters.

After the 2012 Disney deal, and a 10-day family vacation to New Zealand, the Screwvalas got right back to work.

In addition to forming Swades, he has started an online education company, a sports development company and a new film production company, and he has assembled a venture capital portfolio of about 15 businesses.

With Swades, the Screwvalas are once again at the forefront of a movement, this time in corporate social responsibility and philanthropy. Though India is among the countries with the most billionaires in the world, it has a poor history of philanthropy.

Last year, the Singapore-based Hurun Research Institute ranked Mr. Screwvala eighth among India’s philanthropists; Swades plans to allocate $113 million over the next five years.

“We’d already started a small nonprofit called Share in 2000,” said Ms. Screwvala, sitting at her writing desk in the couple’s apartment in Mumbai. The name is an acronym for Society to Heal, Aid, Restore, Educate. “We were doing good works, but one day Ronnie came to me and said, ‘Let’s lift a million people out of poverty.’ The idea was breathtaking. This was shortly after the Disney acquisition and I was wondering myself what to do next.”

A petite woman with an infectious enthusiasm, she spoke passionately about the lessons she was learning with Swades. “We did a lot of research, talking to leading experts, before we launched,” she said. “Everyone admired our ambition but told us we would fail. When someone tells us we will fail, it only strengthens our resolve. It’s been the most difficult work I’ve ever done, the hardest part being changing mind-sets and building aspiration among poor people.”

Ms. Screwvala said she was inspired to take on the challenge in part by a quotation from the ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi that seemed to speak directly to her: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”